Haggerty: Gap between Bruins management, coach became too great

Haggerty: Gap between Bruins management, coach became too great

BRIGHTON, Mass – What it came down to in the end was a gap between the vision Bruins management has for their franchise, and what Claude Julien is at the very core of his hockey coach being. If the Bruins were on track to getting into the playoffs this season or were showing real progress in key areas, then there’s no doubt Julien would have marched on toward completing his 10th full season behind the Boston bench.

But instead the B’s are on the outside of the playoff structure looking in coming out of last weekend’s ugly 6-5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Julien paid the price getting fired on Tuesday morning with assistant Bruce Cassidy taking over as the interim coach. Clearly things were partially win-loss results-based after the Bruins missed the playoff cut with collapses in each of the last two seasons, and appear to be trending that way again this season.

There was a growing disconnect between Bruins management and their head coach in recent months, and had gotten to the point where Julien candidly admitted he wasn’t even getting reports on AHL players like Anton Khudobin when they were recalled from Providence. It seemed plain that the coach was being left out of the loop in many of the decisions being made by the brain trust, and that was a change from the Bruins glory years in the recent past.

As Sweeney said to the gathered media at Warrior Ice Arena on Tuesday afternoon, the Bruins GM wants to evaluate his players and see if they respond to a different coaching voice before making some big roster decisions following the season.

“It was not an easy decision [to fire Julien] in any way, shape, or form. In a lot of ways, people would say, well ‘Why can’t you just ride out the season?’ Well, I think the timing became an opportunity for us to evaluate going down the stretch, where these players are and how many of them can fit in to what we want to do going forward and the decisions that we have to make accordingly,” said Sweeney. “[We want to see] how players react to a different voice, and a direction change. I’m looking for alignment from top to bottom as to what our expectations are, from the players that have won to the players that are coming in

“I want to be in consult with the next coach of the Boston Bruins, while I am evaluating the current staff. I’ll have a list of [permanent head coach] candidates that will fall in line with what I am trying to do.”

Behind the scenes it sounds like there was a wide gap between the management group’s philosophy and a wildly successful, old school coach in Claude Julien. The Bruins are looking to fully embrace the new direction of the NHL that favors speed, skill, youth and aggressive offense guided by creativity and calculated risk-taking, and wants to continue developing the next generation of players looking to embrace that style.

Some of those younger players like Torey Krug and, this season, David Pastrnak had earned entry into the Claude Julien circle of trust, and 20-year-old Brandon Carlo has been afforded every opportunity to grow and develop while playing an important role for the Black and Gold. But with other young players like Ryan Spooner and Colin Miller, the progress has a bit more stop-and-start, and the trust from the head coach has been difficult to come by.

In general during times of stress or struggle, Julien would always dial back to a more conservative approach slowing things down and riding the players that he trusted most. That’s not to take away at all from Julien’s franchise-record 419 career wins behind the Bruins bench, the seven playoff appearances with Boston or the Stanley Cup title in 2011.  

But Julien’s methods led to some frustration within some corners of the Bruins dressing room even if longtime B’s team leaders like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Zdeno Chara publicly and rightfully defended their fired head coach.

“[There was] complete frustration with his inability to adjust to the new game,” said one source familiar with the dynamic between Julien and his Bruins players. “His answer was always just work harder. If Rask didn’t stand on his head [the Bruins] weren’t winning.”

Sweeney admitted on Tuesday afternoon there were some philosophical differences between the GM and his head coach, and alluded to some of these issues when talking about what Cassidy could bring to the table as interim head coach.

“Butch has the tendency to have his practice at a high tempo. We’ll see if any of our players can respond to that in some areas. Defensively I don’t think we’ll deviate too much from the structure. I think there will be a few tweaks there,” said Sweeney. “Offensively, Butch was an offensive player. I think he sees the game and realizes that our power play got off to a slow start. But, it’s certainly turned the corner. He and the rest of the coaches have been working on that. I think he gravitates towards players that have a creative mind.

“Along with the fact that, I said, he doesn’t deviate from the structure and accountability-wise. He’s pretty black and white from a player’s perspective. Where you stand and what you’re bringing to the table, I think that will be something that he likes to meet with players and set the expectations. If it’s not going well in a game, he makes changes and makes adjustments. Then he wakes up that next day and realizes how that player will get better. He’s not carrying something over from the night before. He’s good that way.”

It certainly sounds like the kind of offensive tweaks that could cater to a number of Bruins players that have struggled this season from young guys like Spooner and Coin Miller to older, veteran players like David Krejci that have been noticeably subpar this season. That could be the kind of thing that would allow the Bruins to go on the kind of winning tear that’s eluded them all season, and ultimately cost Julien his job.

But the bottom line is this with the Bruins: They’re not going to change their fortune unless they start fighting to get closer to the net for their scoring chances, and improve their current standing as a nice possession team that settles for perimeter chances. They’re also not going to improve unless they cut down on some of the repeated gaffes they make in the defensive zone, and vastly improve the quality of play they’re getting this season from a group of lackluster backup goaltenders.

They're not going to improve unless they turn into a hard-working hockey club that consistently out-hustles their opponents, and is ready to play hard all three periods each and every game. 

If Cassidy can’t find a way to mine improvement in some of those areas with the same cast of Bruins characters, then we’ll all end up wondering why the Bruins axed arguably the greatest coach in franchise history for change that never arrived. 

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

TAMPA – David Backes certainly didn’t escape the scary situation with an errant skate blade unscathed, of course. 

The 33-year-old limped his way to the Bruins team bus out of Amalie Arena after Boston’s 3-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and needed approximately 18 stitches to close up the gash on his right thigh. But Backes was still able to joke about it as he exited the dressing room while knowing that it could have been much, much worse with that kind of freak accident on the ice. 

"I'll play a second period one of these days,” said a smiling Backes, who was forced out of Saturday night’s loss with the skate blade cut in the last minute of the first period and exited the Florida loss as well after catching a match penalty in the first period as well. Luckily for him, there was no structural damage to Backes’ right leg after Yanni Gourde caught him in the thigh area as both players were down on the ice around the Tampa net.

MORE - Haggerty: B's make a statement to Lightning, rest of NHL

There was a lot of blood, however, as he quickly exited the ice, sped past the bench and headed right to the Bruins dressing room with Bruins trainer Donnie DelNegro trailing right behind. 

“I went in and saw him between periods. He’s okay. There’s no structural damage. There will be concern going forward about swelling or infection, but it looks like he’ll be okay. We’ll classify him as day-to-day, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play on Monday,” said Bruce Cassidy of Backes, who actually scored the second goal of the game for the Bruins as a power play strike. “You see a guy coming off like that and you see the blood pooling up, and you’re always worried they could hit an artery somewhere. He was able to get up. That was the first good sign and he was able to be tended to quickly. 

“It is scary. But we were told it would be a deep cut that would require some stitches, and it wasn’t too dangerous.”

For now it just becomes an eventful month for Backes where he’s been suspended, tossed out of a game with a match penalty and now forced out of a game after a freak skate blade incident, but there’s no doubt he’ll return better and stronger than ever in rapid fashion as he’s done through the last two seasons with the Bruins.


B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

AP Photo

B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

TAMPA – One has to wonder what the Tampa Bay Lightning are thinking after Saturday night’s game. 

It’s probably something along the lines of “Oh crap” after the Bruins completely shut them down while missing their top defensemen pairing, their best all-around player and top line center, their most impactful rookie forward and also losing their best power forward, who was filling in as top line center, in the first period. The undermanned Bruins made a big, fat statement with their 3-0 win over the well-rested, healthy Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena at the end of a long, four-game road trip, and now sit just two points behind the Bolts with 12 games to play in the regular season. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

It was impressive enough that the Black and Gold won at all against the NHL’s best team while missing so many of their top shelf players, but to do it while also totally shutting down Tampa’s offense was something worth remarking about. The Bruins defense and goaltending had been playing a bit fast and loose for the better part of a month, and had been bailed out time and again by an offense that’s been dropping big numbers lately. 

But the Bruins went into Saturday night determined to leave an impression with the Lightning about what awaits them next month once the playoffs start, and they did it with physical, gritty defense that left Tampa with little space to operate. Even better the Bruins defensemen moved the puck pretty much perfectly and swiftly all night, blocked shots with hard-nosed determination and proved they could do more than survive without Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. 

That’s damned impressive when you consider the opponents from Tampa Bay lining up against them with a chance to clinch their playoff spot, and what’s on the line for both teams headed into the final three weeks of the regular season. 

“We were looking at it as more of a bounce-back against a really good team, and let’s see where we are. I thought we answered the bell,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “Probably the biggest win in a long time. We've had some nice comebacks and some high-scoring affairs, but it was nice to get a zero [goals allowed] in the column. It’s been a while. 

“It was just good, solid team defense…winning pucks. It was probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored were pretty nice ones going to the net. It was playoff hockey. I thought we were better at it than they were tonight. Who knows how the next one is going to go, but we’re going to enjoy this.”

It was clear early on that the Bruins wanted to set the tone both physically and style of play-wise, and they did just that. The pounding physicality clearly bothered the Lightning as Steven Stamkos made an uncharacteristic choice to retaliate against Tim Schaller after he threw a heavy hit on the Tampa Bay star player. That landed Stamkos in the box and set the Bruins up for their first of two power play goals on the evening. 

Those two power play goals were proof enough that the Bruins had their special teams in good order, but it took just a combined 23 seconds of power play time to strike for those two scores against the Lightning penalty kill. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay coaching staff up at night before the final two meetings between these two teams. The suffocating defense, the stout physicality and the quick strike offense just completely overwhelmed the Lightning, and things went exactly according to the game plan that Bruce Cassidy had set out for them prior to the game. 

“We’re a confident group back there, and when we play the way we’re supposed to we can compete with anybody,” said Kevan Miller, who played a punishing, physical 21:41 of ice time in the win. “It’s that time of year where we’re pushing for the playoffs, we’re grinding away and we knew as a group after [the Florida loss] we needed to tighten things up. We did that. That’s a tough team over there, so you need to take time and space away from them. As a group we did a great job of that.”

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bruins early was David Backes exiting quickly at the end of the first after his right thigh got sliced by an errant skate blade. But even the 33-year-old Backes managed to avoid serious injury despite approximately 18 stitches to close the wound, and was cracking jokes about it as he limped to the Bruins bus postgame.

Clearly things can and will change with two games remaining between the two teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins should theoretically be even better and more difficult to beat once they got all of their key players healthy, and that’s got to be a frightening prospect for the Lightning. 

MORE - Talking Points: B's start strong and don't look back vs Tampa

Then again perhaps the Bolts were a little rusty after three days off leading into Saturday night, and they needed to be kicked in the teeth by the Bruins to start getting that hunger back. Either way the Bruins are within a single win of pulling into a tie for the President’s Trophy and home ice throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Nobody should be surprised the Bruins did it once again while fighting through injuries and a brutal late season schedule, and that’s a testament to how stubbornly they’ve successfully plowed through adversity this season. 

The dominant win over Tampa on Saturday night just serves as another piece of compelling hockey evidence that something special is building with the Black and Gold. It’s become impossible to deny or ignore as the Bruins continue bucking the odds in a way that should have everybody else’s full attention around the NHL at this point.